Laura and I have done some house-sitting in both California’s exclusive enclave of Montecito, known for the celebrities who live there, and Santa Barbara with its beautiful harbor, the Channel Islands off the coast, and the Pacific Ocean beyond. The city’s backdrop is formed by the Santa Ynez Mountains and its foothills, lit at night by lights from isolated homes dotting their landscape.
Other homes can be seen from the vantage point we occupy on top of one of these foothills, but they are well below the house we are currently minding. Save for the insects, the coyotes, and the sporadic warning of a hissing rattler poised to strike, we are out of easy reach in a realm of total silence.
A few minutes past midnight our first night there, we are awakened by a chorus of frenzied coyotes howling and barking. Within a few seconds everything begins to roll and shake.
It’s a minor earthquake, a tremor. A presentiment of possibly something more, something bigger to come.
Like the earth beneath our feet, relationships are similarly subject to tremors, warning signs that something might be amiss. And it doesn’t always take much to cause that rolling, shaking feeling. Sometimes we are subjected to little “digs” that ordinarily engender a halfhearted laugh, and we move on. But when these become more pointed, too frequent, or are delivered at the wrong time, the brief, deflective chuckle morphs into something less chuckle-worthy and more disturbing. One’s disappointment over this seemingly innocuous form of what feels like bullying should be enough to discourage a repeat of this offense.
And if it doesn’t? If the pattern of bullying or neglect continues, despite one’s pleas for reform? What message does that kind of disregard, and the tremors it causes, send? The underlying problems take on weight and begin feeling more like earthquakes shaking the solid foundations on which one thought they had been standing.
A bit rattled initially, you manage to dismiss it. But it’s disheartening to be summarily dismissed or not taken seriously. To feel that what you want, or you yourself, isn’t important. That your feelings don’t matter at all. Bullies will tell you it’s all “in good fun,” but when they push you to the point of anger, it doesn’t seem very funny, does it? It’s not a punch in the stomach or a derogatory remark, necessarily, but it’s bullying just the same.
If you’re doing or saying something that is clearly not appreciated, why keep doing it?
Disappointment becomes frustration, then anger, and causes a disengagement that takes on a permanence you failed to anticipate. The message you send says 1) you don’t take this seriously, and 2) how the recipient feels about your message isn’t important. That message conveyed may be unintended, but that is the message just the same.
We can’t play with people’s feelings, then say we didn’t mean it.
A tremor is a warning that puts us on notice. Worse things may come if we don’t heed the message it sends. The next time might be one too many. Consecutive incidents chip away at the foundation of your relationship, and each nick requires more effort to overcome the pain it inflicts. The crack becomes a chasm, and you perch on its edge watching everything get sucked into its black hole from which nothing is any longer salvageable. When we fail to heed the warning signs, when we become inattentive to our surroundings and the individuals in them, bad things can – and will – happen.
Last night’s tremor was a reminder that things could have been, and might still get, worse should we fail to do all we can to obviate problems that might arise from our disregard or complacency.
There’s a reason they’re called warning signs.